Month: August 2016

Should I Mark Behavior? The Great JGR Debate, and a Silver Lining for Behaviour Rubrics.

Some years ago, Jen S. and her colleagues built a behaviour rubric for her C.I. classes, which Ben Slavic named JGR and which was discussed on his blog and then elsewhere.  Here is a version I have played around with: INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric.  I initially opposed the use of JGR, then used it, then ditched it, and now I use it (but not for marks). Note: this is a modified version of the original JGR; and I don’t know for how long she used her rubric, or if she still does, or what the original looked like.

JGR was developed because– like all of us, especially me– the creator had some challenges managing her C.I. classes in her initial year with T.P.R.S., which can in (especially my) rookie hands turn into a “woo-hoo no more textbook!” clown show.  JGR basically “marks” classroom behaviour.  JGR specifies that students make eye contact, add story details, ask for help, not blurt, not use cell-phones etc.  Jen used it (and if memory serves Ben also recommended its use) by making part of her class mark a function of behaviour as marked by JGR.  So the kids might get, say, 20% of their mark each for reading, writing, listening, speaking and 20% for their in-class behaviour.  Part of the thinking here was that some behaviours lead to acquisition, while others do not and also wreck the classroom environment, and so “acquisition-rewarding” behaviour should be rewarded.

JGR– for many people, including me– “works.”  Which is why– especially when linked with allegedly “acquisition-promoting” behaviours– lots of people are interested in it.

JGR is a kind of “carrot-and-stick” marking tool:  if the kids engaged in the behaviours JGR specified, their marks went up, partly because (a) they got marks for those behaviours, and partly because (b) the behaviours should– in theory– help them acquire more language.

This can of worms was shaken around a bit on Ben’s blog, and recently, thanks to the always-remarkable Terry Waltz, there have been FB and Yahoo discussions about it.  So, today’s question:

Should we assess in-class behaviour for final marks purposes?

My answer: no, never.  Why?

1. Behaviours typically asked for in JGR– or other such rubrics– are not part of any     curricula of which I am aware.  Every language curriculum says something like, students of the Blablabian language will read, write, speak and understand spoken Blablabian, and maybe say something about Blablabian culture.  Nowhere does any  curriculum say “students should suggest details for stories” or “students will lookthe teacher in the eye.”

If it’s going to get a mark, it has to be part of course outcomes.  Any assessment guru (Wormelli, Harlen, etc) will tell you the same thing: we do not mark attitude, behaviour, homework, etc, as these are not part of final outcomes.

To put it another way, how do we judge the New England Patriots football team?  By how well, often and/or enthusiastically they practice and look Bill Belichick in the eye, or by how many games they win?  How should Tom Brady be paid: by how often he shows up for practice, and how nice he is to Belichick, or by how many yards he successfully throws?  That’s right.

We could– and I often do– end up in situations where a “bad” kid does well, or a “good” kid does poorly.  I have had bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher’s pet-type kids who were not especially good at Spanish, and I have had giant pains-in-the-butt who were quite good.

My best-ever student in TPRS, Hamid Hamid, never added story details, never looked up, and always faced away from the board.  Yet he CRUSHED on assessments and got 100% in Spanish 2.  Two years later, his younger brother, Fahim (also a great student) told me that Hamid Hamid was both shy and deaf in his left ear, so always “pointed” his right ear at the board (and so appeared to be looking away).  This kid’s mark would have been lowered by assessing his “in-class behaviour,” which– given his epic Spanish skills– would have been absurd.

2. As Terry Waltz points out, neurodivergent kids can– and do– acquire language without engaging in many behaviours typically required by participation and behaviour rubrics. She also points out that forcing neurodivergent kids into the “normal” mold is at best less than productive. If you are autistic, anxious, suffering from PTSD (as my stepdaughter does) or facing any other neuro challenges, “engagement” rubrics can make your life miserable while not appreciably meaningfully measuring what you can do with the language.

3. The only thing required for language acquisition is reception of comprehensible input.  While the focus of behaviour rubrics is designed to get kids to tune in, it does not follow that many behaviours which do make for a good class– e.g. people adding good details to stories, looking at each other– are necessary to acquire language.

All of us have been there: you have a plan, you did your story warmup or whatever, but the kids aren’t into it.  You bust out a Movietalk but they aren’t into that either.  Dead class. Now, in a C.I. class, we don’t have recourse to worksheets or whatever, and we still have to teach the language. I have a bail-out move here: direct translation, and I always have a novel on the go, so I can read aloud, and Q&A the novel.  If I’m being particularly non-compelling, I’ll throw an exit quiz at them.

The point: if the kids are getting C.I., they are acquiring.  If they are miserable/tired/bored with stories, fine.  They are gonna get C.I. one way or another.

4. Any kind of behaviour rubric plays the awful “rewards” game.  Ask yourself this question:  why do I teach? The answer– other than because I have to make a living— is probably something like, because it’s interesting, I have some measure of control over my work, and I love kids and my subject.  Some will add that teaching, properly done, opens doors for kids.  Teachers do not teach because they want to be evaluated, or because they want to use the latest gizmo, or because they want public praise, etc.  They are, in other words, intrinsically motivated.  They want to work because the work is good and worthy in itself.

When we institute rewards for behaviours, as Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing, we destroy intrinsic motivation.  We turn something interesting into payment for marks.  The point stops being paying attention to the story– or adding to it cos you actually care about it– and becomes something rote.

5. Using behaviour rubrics can dampen professional self-examination. If my practice is such that I have to use marks as a stick to keep kids in line (the policing metaphor is not an accident), there are two possibilities: tough kids, and/or I am doing a bad job.  The question why are they not tuned in? might be answerable with any of the following:

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

— I am ignoring the top or the bottom end of the class– too fast/slow or simple/complex

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

— accountability: they don’t see tuning in as something that results in real gains

— I lack basic skills (smart circling, control of vocab, etc etc)

— my story sucks ūüėČ

I had better be able to look in the mirror, consider and then deal with these possibilities, rather than merely acting like a cop and demanding obedience.

Now, behaviour does matter.  You cannot run a T.P.R.S. class without rules etc.  My basic rules:

  • no phones or other distractions (including side-talk, blurting etc)
  • no insults of anyone other than oneself or of rich entitled people
  • listen, watch and read with the intent to understand; ask when you don’t
  • do not create or engage in distractions

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

  • warning the offender, standing by their desk, calling Mom and Dad, etc
  • pointing, with a smile, to classroom rules every time there is a problem
  • sending them to admin if necessary
  • taking their phone until 3:15 (most kids would rather die)
  • detention, where we discuss behaviour
  • assigning read & translate (quiet seatwork)
  • taking the kids outside for a walk, or doing some other kind of physical brain-break
  • changing activities
  • doing a quiz
  • talking to kids one on one and asking what do I need to do to get you focused?


The upshot?  We should not, and need not, mark “behaviour” or “participation.”


Addendum:  is there ever a use for classroom behaviour rubrics?

Yes.  I get my kids to self-evaluate using JGR every 2-3 weeks.  My version generates a mark out of 20.

Nineteen out of twenty kids will very honestly self-evaluate their behaviour, provided they understand exactly what is expected.  One kid in twenty will heap false praise on him/herself.  For the false praisers (“I never blurt in class!”), I sit them down and explain what I think, then we agree on a more realistic mark.

I save these JGR “marks” and once in a blue moon, when a helicopter parent or an Admin wants to know, how is Baninder doing in Spanish, I can point to both the spreadsheet with Numberz and JGR.  This frames the inevitable discussion about marks in terms any parent can understand.  Any parent, from any culture, understands that if Johnny screws around and/or does not pay attention in class, his mark will drop.

JGR– in my experience– accurately “predicts” the marks of about 80% of kids.  When I can show a kid (or a parent or admin), look, here are Johnny’s marks AND Johnny’s own description of how he behaves in class, we can have an honest discussion about marks, Spanish, etc.  Win-win.

You Are Now Playing the Long Game 

So you’ve had The Experience. During a comprehensible input demonstration– maybe you acquired some Russian from Michelle Whaley or Chinese from Terry Waltz–a lightbulb went off, or you saw a colleague’s beginners writing loooong awesome stories without using notes or dictionary, and you thought,¬†somebody finally cracked it, and then you decided, I’m going to go full C.I. in my classes, and then you wondered, what can I expect?

(Read Tina Hatgaden’s post on this topic here)

Expect to screw up.  You are going to finish your three-period story in twenty minutes, at which point you will feel helpless, almost naked, in front of the kids, minus a plan.

Expect to say something and stare at a sea of blank, silent faces.

Expect a kid to ask¬†in March, after hearing it two thousand times, “how do you say¬†there is in French?”

Expect to have your colleagues ask “but how are they going to learn to conjugate verbs and use pronouns if they don’t practice doing that?” and to not have a simple answer, because the SLA research is complex and voluminous.

Expect to wait a long time for speech from the kids.

Expect to walk past your colleagues’ rooms during your planning period, and see their kids beavering away at worksheets, or engaging (possibly even in Spanish) in their communicative pair activities, or dutifully listening to the Russian audio dialogues and answering multiple-guess questions, or “practicing their German dialogues,” and wondering,¬†are¬†my kids actually doing anything?

Expect to be out of your seat, out from behind your desk, and out of your comfort zone.

Expect to feel like nothing is happening.

Expect to feel like an alien at Department meetings, where topics such as “how can we get the kids to speak Spanish¬†more?” come up, and you want¬†to answer– “Why bother? Let’s wait until they want to talk, and until then give them lots of good reading and listening.” But you don’t say anything because, well, we’re all on the same team here, aren’t we, people?

Expect to finish a class with 30 new words on the board, despite injunctions to carefully shelter vocab, and then find kids throwing random junky words into their stories.

Expect the kids to say “but last year when we took Mandarin, Mr Yu made us write the characters out thirty times each, and we got marked on it, and that mark boosted our overall mark,” and expect to explain,¬†again,¬†¬†why they now have to listen and read for comprehension, and then show understanding, which they cannot do while plugged into devices or fiddling with the font colours on their educational software self-assessment, metacognition-boosting, learning-style customised portfolio plans.

Expect to pray that your Adminz will judge you on your end-of-year results, and not on the fact that if they observe you in October, they will wonder why the class doesn’t prominently feature all of the kids constantly speaking the target language.

Expect to look online, and see experienced C.I. teachers’ results– kids’ writing or speaking, the same results that inspired you to start C.I.– and wonder,¬†how come¬†my kids can’t do that? ¬†Am I useless? ¬†What am I missing?

You expect all this because you are now playing the Long Game.

In the Long Game, as Scott Benedict and Susie Gross remind us, you are teaching for June and not for the next “unit test.”

In the Long Game, while you are planting language seeds now, these will become amazing flowers only after months and months of careful watering with input.

In the Long Game, you are not¬†there to hand out worksheets or police the textbook’s “communicative pair activities,” where the kids correctly wonder why should we ask each other questions in French if it’s soooo much easier to get the same info in English?, and the speak French only when you wander by their desks.

In the Long Game, you are not¬†there to tick off boxes on a Common Core curriculum list, or make sure that the textbook’s stupid worksheets are done.

In the Long Game, you do¬†not¬†assume that just because you’ve “taught” the pass√© compos√©, the kids have “learned” it.

You do¬†not¬†assume, while playing the Long Game, that, just because it’s November, the kids are ready for Grammar Item #237 on Page 89 of the textbook, which is what your Department has always¬†done in November, because by golly, if all our kids rose to the level of Superstar Suzy and actually¬†studied their Grammar Item #237, they would do as well as her, would they not?

When playing the Long Game, your old anally-retentively prepared Integrated Performance Assessments– the wrong kind of IPA for a teacher– wherein you carefully designed a set of inter-related activities to “teach” Vocab Set A and Grammar Set B, and then some tests to measure “proficiency,” are going to flop. ¬†Because, as Long says, “the idea that what we teach is what they learn, and when we teach it is when they learn it, is not just simplistic, it is wrong.” And you are going to wonder, if I taught it so well, why did they not learn it?

In the Long Game, you have to follow Papa Blaine’s dictum to trust yourself enough to shut your door and do what is best for the kids.

In the Long Game, get ready for paradoxes.

But most of all…in the Long Game, get ready to be stretched. Sometimes it’ll feel like yoga, and others the rack. ¬†But when come June the classroom is finally still and full of echoes, you’ll feel like, wow, I did it, now I can do almost anything.¬†

How Easy Is Easy?, or, How I Learned to Avoid #Authres

Reading.  Everything we know about reading suggests that doing reading of comprehensible and interesting texts is a major booster of language acquisition.  But what kind of reading?

Well, the traditionalist will say something like this: “in order to acquire, practice and maintain decoding skills, and to learn about the culture where the target language is spoken, it is necessary and best for all language learners to read authentic documents written by and for native speakers.” So the kids get menus and airport directions, they set their social media platforms to Chinese or Spanish or whatever, and if Monsieur Tabernac does a good job with his five years of French “communicative teaching,”  by Year Six his students will be able to hack through some of Le Petit Prince.

A corollary of this– to teachers– is the standard advice “modify the task, not the text.”  In other words, teaching and “practising” decoding strategies, metacognition etc etc is what you are allegedly supposed to do, rather than making the text itself more comprehensible.

This is recommended practice from ACTFL, an awful lot of language bloggers, various Canadian educational ministries, most American state Education departments, etc. It’s also generally totally wrong.

Today’s question: should we use “authentic documents” in the language classroom?

My answer: generally, NO.


There are three basic arguments against using most “authentic documents,” called #authres on Twitter, in most second language classrooms.

1. Most #authres are low frequency vocabulary
. The top 1500 most-used words in any language are about 85% of spoken language, and suprisingly few are numbers, colours, clothing, body parts, food, animals etc. Seems counterintuitive, but most of what is taught in at least levels 1-4 (in any textbook I have ever seen) is in fact low-frequency vocab. So, the seemingly useful– the menu, the clothing store website or Twitter account, the unit on sports where we learn body parts and injuries– are actually not that useful.

Much the same goes for more “advanced” stuff– short stories, newspaper articles, blogs etc– where there is a LOT of low-frequency vocabulary. If we want to make people fluent, we must start with high-frequency vocabulary, and most #authres does not supply that.

2. We know that people need to hear and read the words (and grammar etc) they are learning over and over, and that they have what Bill VanPatten has called “constraints on working memory.” This basically means that, in order to acquire language, people need to hear a limited variety of it over and over because “too much stuff” is hard to both “keep in the head” and remember, and therefore process.

And this is the second problem with “authentic documents”: they don’t repeat the new stuff enough. People generally won’t remember things that they only see/hear once in a blue moon.

If you want to see how little “authentic documents” repeat high-frequency vocabulary, check this out.

Suppose you were teaching English to non-English speaking kids and you want to use an “authentic resource,” in this case a kids’ book. Dogs are interesting, right? So maybe you use this book. Say you avoid spending tons of time on the dog-specific and you focus on “easy” and generally useful vocab.  Here’s a page:

It seems pretty obvious that the words ears, funny and confused are important.  According to Wiktionary, however, “funny” is the 486th most-used word in English, while “ear” and “confused” are not in the top 1000.  Ironically, of course, the words “fuck” and “sex” show up in the 605th and 640th spots ūüėú.

I went through the book and found that “ear” and “confused” show up exactly once each, and both “funny” and “fun” make one appearance each.

I then took a look at El Nuevo Houdini (a first-year C.I. novel by Carol Gaab, which is also available in English). In one chapter, I counted the word beso (kiss) twenty-two times, and I found it a few more times in subsequent chapters.

So…if you want to do two essential things necessary for acquisition–restricting vocab variety and repeating that vocab a lot– which is going to help your kids more?  That’s right: it’s not the “authentic resource.”

3. The most compelling “anti-#authres” argument, however, is their unreadability. 

We know that people will read if three conditions are met:

  • they can choose the reading
  • the reading is interesting
  • the text is 98% comprehensible

Most of our kids can’t choose most of their reading (although Bryce Hedstrom has amazing suggestions for making and using a free voluntary reading library in his class). So if we assign reading, the choice factor is out. That means that the assigned reading MUST be compelling and comprehensible, unless you want rebellion in class and/or kids not doing reading at home.

So, compelling…in my experience with both legacy authentic texts and modern, TPRS-friendly books from Karen Rowan, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab et al, the modern stuff wins hands down. They are kid-friendly, they use high-frequency vocabulary, they recycle vocab and they have characters and plots that range from funny to moving.

Now, comprehensibility? Here is where it gets interesting. Let’s see how “easy” reading is in English, with a text that goes from being 98% comprehensible to 95%, then 90%, then lower.
Have a look at Marco Benvenides’ short readability presentation. 

What did you notice? Yup. And you’re a competent English speaker!

The lesson: if you assign reading which is less than 98% comprehensible, meaning starts to break down very quickly. Most kids tune out under these conditions.

And this is the main argument against “authentic documents”: if even one word in twenty is incomprehensible (and/or requires the dictionary), we are wasting our time.

The traditionalist here says “but what about culture”? Well, unless you are using music– which repeats loads of vocab and is easy to remember– you are going to be struggling with making culture non-banal.  So I do it in L1.

Linguist Russel Simonsen has proposed the term “learner-centered resource” for texts (audio or written) which foreground what a learner needs: repetition, comprehensibility, high interest. For what we call “authentic resources,” he proposes the term “non-learner-centered resources.” The word “authentic” is itself loaded: it implies that things which are not “authentic” are inauthentic, ie somehow less valuable. (This is an idiotic argument: Joseph Conrad was Polish and Vladimir Nabokov Russian. Both wrote in English. Are their novels not “authentic”?)

 So, to sum up: most #authres have too much low-freq vocabulary, too little repetition, and– for most students– are unreadable. As it turns out, my conclusions are echoed by research (thanks, Diane Neubauer).

 Anyway…as usual, comments are welcome.